NASA's new ultra-quiet supersonic plane could cause a sonic boom in air travel

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Jul 3, 2017

With all the restless traffic, wailing sirens, angry lawnmowers and roaring leaf blowers (because it’s that time of year) around, the last thing you need is more noise pollution. NASA hears you.

The space agency wants to send the ultimate oxymoron into the air—a quiet plane. Not only that, but a quiet supersonic plane. Supersonic aircraft were banned from flying over land in 1973 because of the sonic boom that inevitably followed something shooting through their air faster than the speed of sound. Think a sudden explosion out of nowhere that may or may not have convinced people Armageddon was coming too soon. NASA’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstration X-plane (LBFD) has managed to muffle this boom to a soft thump, which might be a little more convincing to the federal authorities they’ll have to convince to lift the ban.

Quiet Supersonic Techonlogy (QueSST) is the initial design stage NASA is joining forces with Lockheed Martin on morphing into the LBFD. Engineers and other flight experts from both entities recently collaborated, tirelessly looking over the initial plans and making sure many times over that QueSST would fly the (almost) silent skies. With preliminary designs approved, phase two will focus on fine-tuning the design based on a series of performance and wind tunnel tests. Then things really take off. While Lockheed Martin has been on board as lead contractor through the embryonic phases of this project, an upcoming competition for a follow-on contract will ultimately see whose proposal flies the highest.

NASA conducts wind tunnel tests on an LBFD design.

“Managing a project like this is all about moving from one milestone to the next,” said David Richwine, design manager for NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology Project. “Our strong partnership with Lockheed Martin helped get us to this point. We’re now one step closer to building an actual X-plane.”

There can never be too many precautions to take when you’re trying to keep quiet. NASA tested a scale model of the X-plane design in an 8x6-foot supersonic wind tunnel at its Glenn Research Center last month. And the completion of its joint study with Honeywell, which involved testing an avionics system designed to minimize the sonic boom impact, was just announced at the Paris Air Show last week. Eventually, the plane will get to launch a test flight over communities from which data will be collected. If nobody reports the most apocalyptic wake-up call in the universe, then it’s a few decibels closer to being a go.

Expect the prototype to possibly zoom over your neighborhood as early as 2021. Except you might not even hear it.

(via Geekwire)